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15 Ways Your Next Flight May Be Different, According To This Airline's Medical Expert

What to expect from check-in to landing — and everything in between.

Post-coronavirus travel dreaming is fun — until you remember you might have to travel on an airplane with complete strangers for multiple hours.

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I mean, sitting inches from a complete stranger was alarming even before there was a worldwide pandemic.

All of this begs the question: What will flying be like the next time you travel? Will people be wearing masks? Will you have to sit near a stranger? And, most importantly, will there still be free pretzels?

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So many questions.

To help you out, I got the skinny from United’s corporate medical director, Pat Baylis, a 35-year United veteran and the only full-time, on-site medical director at a US airline.

While the following information is specific to United, American Airlines and Delta have some similar policies. Here’s what you can expect the next time you fly.

But know this: Any type of travel increases your risk of contracting or spreading the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The safest thing you can do is avoid traveling altogether.

1. You might not be seated next to other travelers.

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Much of the spacing and seat configuration is done in advance, but if you find yourself sitting next to a stranger and the plane isn’t full, Baylis said the “flight attendants will work to reseat customers to open seats” — whenever possible.

Maintaining social distance is one of the best ways to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, but crowded flights can make this more difficult. The CDC warns that on an airplane, "you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours," which could increase your risk of getting or spreading the coronavirus.

2. If the flight is expected to be fairly full, United will let you know and give you the chance to change your flight for free.

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“The vast majority of flights are not going out full; however, for the very few percent of flights that we expect might depart more than 70% full, when possible, we are reaching out to customers starting 24 hours before their flight to allow them to change their flight at no additional charge,” said Baylis.

Some other airlines, including Delta and JetBlue, are limiting capacity and blocking seats as a way to promote social distancing.

3. During the check-in process, you’ll be asked to confirm that you don’t have COVID-19 symptoms.

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In addition to being asked about your health, you’ll also be prompted to review and agree to the airline's policies.

“The Ready-to-Fly checklist asks customers to confirm they have not experienced COVID-19–related symptoms in the past 14 days and they have not tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 21 days. It also verifies that customers will wear a face covering on board,” said Baylis.

4. You should download your boarding pass on your phone or print it out at home.

5. If you need to check a bag, you can do so via a touchless bag drop.

6. You'll find increased sanitation measures at the airport.

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Any time spent at the airport, whether in security lines or terminals, poses a risk, since it exposes you to others and frequently touched surfaces.

According to Baylis, personal disinfectant supplies, like hand-sanitizing wipes, shouldn't be hard to find, and places that get a lot of traffic — bathroom door handles, elevator buttons, handrails — will be sanitized regularly by the team.

In addition, electrostatic sprayers are now being used to clean some gate areas; the front, back, and sides of surfaces are sprayed with disinfecting agents. “We’ve begun using the Clorox Total 360 Electrostatic Sprayers in our gate areas to help us disinfect the airport. Right now, this is only live at our Chicago hub, but we are planning to expand to additional airports,” said Baylis.

7. At the gate, you’ll be asked to scan your boarding pass yourself. And expect a totally revamped boarding and disembarking process.

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The priority group boarding method has been replaced with a process that boards passengers from the back of the plane to the front, so you won't have to walk by other passengers on the way to your seat.

“We are also deplaning by row — front to back — to also reduce the number of people customers walk by as they exit,” said Baylis. “This is a good way to reduce the exposure customers have to each other.”

8. Before boarding, the aircraft cabin will be cleaned with an electrostatic sprayer, and high-touch areas will be regularly disinfected.

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The interior of the plane will be thoroughly cleaned using electrostatic technology, and high-touch areas like entertainment screens, seatbelts, armrests, door handles, and onboard lavatories will be regularly disinfected.

9. You’ll be provided with hand-sanitizing wipes as you board, as well as a snack bag in-flight (depending on your flight duration and booking class).

10. On board, there’s a mandated mask policy — for everyone.

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The industry trade organization Airlines for America — which represents United, American Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest, among others — announced in June that all of its member carriers will be enforcing a strict face-covering policy.

However, since there's no federal government mandate, each airline is charged with setting its own policies. United offers exceptions for “individuals who have a medical condition or a disability that prevents them from wearing a face covering, those who cannot put on or remove a face covering themselves, and small children,” according to a recent press release.

The airline will also provide masks for travelers who’ve forgotten theirs. “One of the most important things anyone can do to stop the spread of the virus is to wear a face covering,” said Baylis.

11. Passengers who refuse to wear a mask could be put on an internal travel restriction list.

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The incident will be reviewed after the flight, and travelers added to this list could lose their United travel privileges for a period of time.

This scenario has already played out for other companies, such as American Airlines, which recently banned a passenger who refused to comply with its mask policy.

12. High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters clean and circulate the air during the flight.

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These filters remove up to 99.97% of airborne particles, “including dust, viruses, and bacteria — providing the same degree of protection as those used in hospitals," according to Baylis. "The air circulation completely circulates air every two to three minutes.”

The CDC states that "most newer-model airplanes" have these filters, and as a result, "the cabin air environment is not conducive to the spread of most infectious diseases."

13. Onboard services like booze and pillows have been altered or cut.

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"We’ve also reduced buy-on-board products, including alcohol, to avoid a touchpoint of customers and flight attendants having to share credit cards and additional food items," said Baylis. However, general beverage service has returned to flights over one hour. On international flights, passengers in economy will be offered complimentary, individually packaged beer and wine, while those in premium cabins can get liquor in single-serve bottles.

In addition, the United CleanPlus guidelines note that you can only get a pillow and blanket “upon request on international flights out of our hub airports.”

14. AI and drone-operated cleaning processes and health screenings are being tested out.

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United is testing artificial intelligence that could assist with temperature screening and crowd detection, and working to expand and improve its sanitation methods — including an antimicrobial shield for surfaces and UV cleaning that would be deployed by handheld wands or drones.

15. And while new policies and processes may be lifted eventually, some may be the new reality of air travel.

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It’s hard to say how things will pan out, or what people will feel comfortable with when traveling by air in the future.

“Some of these changes may loosen up over time, especially if there is a vaccine, and some of these policies may be in place indefinitely as we learn new ways to keep customers and employees safe,” said Baylis.

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